Foreign policy is a key topic in the approaching Russian presidential elections, which takes place in March 2018. The current challenges in foreign relations are seen as serious. Ukraine, as well as the cost of ongoing military engagement in Syria, for example, are making even some Kremlin journalists wonder whether Russia needs all that trouble.
According to Russia’s constitution, the competences of the President, and his main task, are predominantly the creation and execution of foreign policy. The government and prime minister are more engaged in internal matters, such as justice, economy, and fiscal policy.
The real situation is, however, quite similar to that in some Balkan states, where the office of prime minister serves only as a tool for the president.
In Russia, Putin must formally respect a constitutional requirement that prohibits running for more than two consecutive terms.
But no limit exists on the total number of times a person can be elected as President as long as they miss one in three election cycles. The division of competences within the executive branch is purely cosmetic.
Russia’s Central Electoral Commission announced that it had received 64 candidatures by January 1, the deadline for submitting applications.
The law imposes certain limitations on who can stand, such as age [minimum 35], the obligation not to have a criminal record, to have resided in Russia for more than ten years, etc.
To participate in the 2018 presidential election, candidates must also have submitted the decision of their party’s convention or have registered an initiative group of 500 voters with the CEC.
Candidates must also collect signatures in their support – 100,000 for a party-backed candidate and 300,000 for an independent.
Kremlin ‘pulling out’ of Balkan adventures
One question is to what extent the Balkans is present in the current campaign. The answer is – almost not at all. This might be due to the fact that the Kremlin has decided to pull out off “ground operations” in the Balkans following a series of setbacks.
Since the election of a new pro-Western government in Macedonia last year, and the failed alleged coup in Montenegro, all Russian government and quasi-government institutions dealing with foreign or strategic policies, and with a focus on the Balkans, have reduced the scope of their activities.
This is because in the Balkan region today, only Serbia and the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia remain truly open to Russian political interests. And even some Serbian politicians are slowly becoming aware that Russia’s Balkan adventures bring more headaches than benefits.
Analysis of the election programs in Russia, especially those sections related to foreign policy, show that the term “Balkan” cannot be found listed among any of the candidates’ priorities.
The most important topics listed are the question of Ukraine, Russian relations with the US and the EU, the Middle East, Korea and China, and the issue of sanctions as a direct consequence of Russia’s official foreign policy.
Most popular liberal not allowed to run
A good part of the “liberal public” in Russia will refuse to take part in the elections in any case. This is mostly due to the decision of the CEC to prevent Aleksey Navalny from taking part in the race.
The formal reason for rejecting his candidature is that, by law, a convicted person cannot run for office. Navalny, however, is the only independent opposition candidate who has succeeded in building a respectable network of electoral offices and activists across the country – built up through a series of protests and anti-corruption campaigns over the past few years.
Although he does not now have the chance to participate in the election, Navalny remains the most influential opposition figure in Russia. His program does not elaborate on foreign policy in detail, except that it should serve exclusively the interests of the citizens of Russia.
Calls for end to policy of confrontation
Ksenia Sobchak, a journalist and supporter of Navalny’s, daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, a former Mayor of St Petersburg and a political mentor of Putin’s, has, however, decided to run for the presidency. In making this decision, she drew condemnation from part of the Russian opposition public close to Navalny.
Sobchak says Russia is an integral part of Europe, geographically, historically and culturally, so Russians must live in accordance with European values. She advocates the immediate suspension of the conflict in the east of Ukraine and the withdrawal of all Russian troops, wherever they may be found in the world.
She promises to stop the propaganda of war and “the cultivation of an atmosphere of hatred and total confrontation with everyone in foreign policy”. She proposes another referendum in the Crimea, this time with the participation of Kiev.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of Yabloko, once the strongest opposition party in Russia, and along with Putin, a veteran of presidential elections, believes Russia must unconditionally return Crimea to Ukraine, leave the Donbass region of Ukraine and withdraw troops from Syria.
He says that Russia must abandon its current confrontation “with the entire civilized world”, primarily with the US and the European Union. One dissenter from these points of view is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, known in the Balkans for warmongering in the 1990s, who shares his nationalistic vision of foreign policy with his Balkan friend, the Serbian nationalist leader Vojislav Šešelj.
He says Russia should strive to restore the borders of the old Russian Empire, albeit in “a peaceful way”. It is symptomatic, however, that even this nationalist firebrand no longer mentions the Balkans in his appearances.
Putin’s ‘Honey Badger’ doctrine
Although Putin has not published his program yet, his public appearances continue to call for Eurasian integration, which is another name for Russia’s attempts to create a rival force to the EU in the territory of the former USSR.
Nevertheless, Russia’s relations with some of the former USSR countries have deteriorated over the past ten years. Worries about Russia’s intentions in the former Soviet Baltic countries prompted NATO allies to increase their military presence in that region.
Meanwhile the annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s aid to separatists in Eastern Ukraine and in Georgia have significantly complicated relations with some former Soviet states, as well as with the West.
Putin’s re-election, which no one seriously doubts, will not change much in Russia’s overall foreign policy strategy, which journalist Mikhail Kolesnikov calls the “Honey Badger Doctrine” (video).
“The Kremlin is pursuing five basic goals. The first is to show that Russia is an international super heavyweight, in the same league as the US and the European Union. Moscow can form its own trade bloc [the Eurasian Union], start a conflict [Ukraine], and become a key player in an existing conflict [Syria],” he said.
“Like a honey badger, it is not afraid to confront serious opponents,” he added.
Korostikov argues that even though this doctrine has delivered some results, it is only “a strategy of survival, not of development”, and cannot bring long-term benefits for Russia.
This article appears at the Balkan Insight website under the same title. Please follow this link to the original source.